At 61, 'late-bloomer' Snitker savors shot as Braves manager

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) Let's face it, Brian Snitker had pretty much given up on his dream.

He always wanted to be a big league manager.

But with his career in baseball approaching four decades, he figured there wasn't much chance of actually getting the call.

Yet here he is, at 61, getting ready for his first full season as skipper of the Atlanta Braves.

''I've always been a late bloomer,'' Snitker cracked this week, sitting in the dugout after his team finished a spring training workout.

He took over the Braves on an interim basis last May, becoming the fourth-oldest rookie manager in baseball history.

Snitker was surpassed only by 66-year-old Tom Sheehan, who managed the San Francisco Giants for part of the 1960 season; 64-year-old Bobby Mattick, who guided the Toronto Blue Jays in 1980 and `81; and 62-year-old Red Corriden, who finished the 1950 season for the Chicago White Sox.

''I don't feel my age,'' Snitker said. ''I'm going to just enjoy it for what it is and have a good time with it.''

He certainly put in the time.

Snitker has been with the Braves organization since 1977, spending four seasons as a minor league catcher and first baseman before moving into coaching.

He became a manager for the first time in the Class A South Atlantic League at age 26, and his star seemed on the rise when he joined the big league club as a bullpen coach in 1985.

It didn't last. He returned to the minors the following season, settling into a largely overlooked career as a jack-of-all trades in the organization. He managed at every level of the minors, from the rookie leagues to Triple-A, and got two more stints as a coach for the big league team.

After seven years as Atlanta's third-base coach, first serving under Bobby Cox and then for his successor, Fredi Gonzalez, Snitker was sent back to the minors following the 2013 season to manage Triple-A Gwinnett.

He dutifully accepted the job but could see the writing on the wall.

His hopes of managing the Braves - or any other major league team, for that matter - were likely finished.

''You know what? After being up here and seeing what those guys go through and all that, I was like, `Eh, I'm getting to that age where it probably won't (happen)''' Snitker remembered. ''Then, all of a sudden, they called. It's like, `Heck, yeah, I'll do it.'''

Last May, with the Braves in the midst of a major rebuilding job and predictably off to a miserable start, Gonzalez was fired.

Snitker was handed what looked like another thankless job: Just get through the season the best he could, before the Braves moved on to their next full-time manager.

A funny thing happened, though.

The Braves, who won just 16 of their first 58 games, suddenly became a respectable team. Yes, they still finished last in the NL East, but team executives took notice of a 52-51 record after June 7 - and especially a group that played hard until the end, winning 12 of its last 14 games when there wasn't anything on the line.

There was a bit of an uncomfortable period while the Braves interviewed former managers Bud Black and Ron Washington, but Snitker wound up getting the full-time job nine days after the season ended.

''Brian truly earned this opportunity,'' general manager John Coppolella said. ''Whether it's the 40 years of service to the Braves, whether it's the way the team performed, but probably more than anything it's the feeling our players have for him. These guys played differently under him. They came to me and (president of baseball operations) John Hart personally and said, ''Look, this is the best manager we've ever had.'''

Snitker brought a more relaxed atmosphere to the clubhouse, something definitely lacking toward the end of Gonzalez's tenure. He instilled confidence in his players. He made the game fun again.

''He understands the grind,'' catcher Tyler Flowers said. ''He's someone who had to grind it out himself. He's been there.''

Snitker is still getting used to being the guy in charge, but he's putting his stamp on the team.

He brought in three new coaches, including Washington at third-base coach. At spring training, the Braves have returned to a shorter schedule for workouts, more in line with the way Cox ran things during his more than two decades as manager.

''People are tugging at you a lot more, and you're responsible for everything,'' Snitker said. ''But every day you're out there, every day that you experience it, I think you get a little better at it.''

At his age, Snitker can't afford to look too far down the road.

''I know I'm not going to be doing this for 20 years,'' he said with a chuckle.

But there are some advantages to waiting so long for his chance. He's got a lot more experience than most rookies.

''It's not like I'm not prepared, I know that,'' Snitker said. ''I've been preparing for this job my whole 40 years.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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